Practice Makes Perfect Permanence

July 13, 2011

Two sayings, each with truth:

  • “Practice makes perfect.”
  • “Practice makes permanent.”

The first is familiar to most. We’ve heard it often. Anyone subjected to insert musical instrument lessons knows the answer to the question, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” Practice, practice, practice. The second, interestingly enough, I learned from a musical instrument instructor, a mandolin teacher I had once. His point – practice the wrong things, the wrong way, and you’ll end up permanently doing things wrong.

The common denominator of both sayings though, obviously, is that in order to get really good at anything (correctly or not) is to practice. A lot. Lots of people are richly talented. They come out of the womb with innate abilities to do things – draw, write, make music, understand quantum physics. We often see them perform or see the results of their talent and think to ourselves, “I could never do that.” There’s surely some truth to that saying, too. Sometimes. Talent is a gift to be thankful for and some are blessed with more of it than others. Still, I think sometimes we sell both ourselves and those talented people short in that we forget to recognize the really important role that practice plays in bringing out the full richness of one’s talent(s).

This morning, before getting out of bed, I finished Jeannette Walls’ memoir, The Glass Castle. I’ll not comment on the book here except to say it is, all at once, incredible and unbelievable, hopeful and infuriating. It’s definitely worth reading. But what I thought about as I closed the cover, got dressed, and took Zeb for his morning walk, was how Jeannette Walls became such a good writer. She had a story to tell, for sure, but she tells it well because she’s a good writer and she became a good writer by first reading and then writing. A lot.

As a child, she (as well as her parents and siblings) devoured books. She read and read and read. She describes fond memories of her family sitting together in the living room of some shack they occupied at the time, all reading together. They didn’t watch TV together – in part because they had no television, let alone any electricity to run one – but instead sat together, each in their own world of whatever story they were reading at the time. And she loved this.

As she entered high school, she started working on the school paper. She started editing and typesetting. She started writing. She wrote about everything. Hardly any other students wanted to work on the paper and so she wrote the stories of football games, class events and school board decisions. She left West Virginia as a teenager to join her older sister in New York City and soon found a job writing for a weekly paper there. She wrote and wrote and wrote, as she had read and read and read, and in doing so the talent that she discovered at 13 or so, developed and ultimately became her livelihood and her career. She is a writer.

The same story line can be traced for practically anyone who has become really good at what they do. How many millions of hours has your favorite musician practiced? What artist is ever found without a sketchbook in his or her bag? The Dean of the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences where I work always has a nice black Moleskin notebook with him whenever I see him (I have a thing for journals and take note when I see one), as do others I know who think a lot, ask questions a lot, and try to solve problems a lot.

Scientists do a thousand experiments that go wrong before they experience the “Aha!” moment. Julia Child likely went through skeins of twine before she could tie that chicken up just right. Really good baseball players “only” hit .300 and no one’s come close to a .400 season in a long, long time now. That’s a lot of strikeouts and a lot of ground balls and a lot of pop ups in between the singles and the homeruns.

I may never write as well as Annie Dillard, play the mandolin like Chris Thile, run a marathon as fast as Joan Benoit Samuelson, or even be a library director like Jean Shipman – all people I admire for how they do what they do. But to say one will never be something without putting in the practice is much different than saying so while at the same time, showing up every day and working hard at what you enjoy and want to do.

So now I’ll head to work in the library where I’ve an article to finish, knowing that I’ve primed my writing brain by taking some time this morning for reading and writing. I’ll draw some pictures during lunch. I’ll slog through another slow, slow pace as I put in the miles training for the Chicago Marathon this fall. And then I’ll watch the recap of today’s Tour de France stage while I practice over and over that little riff Howie showed me on my mandolin. And it’ll be a good day.

Here’s hoping you have the same.

A Busy Mind Needs a Map

July 1, 2011

It’s summertime and every afternoon lately, as I head outside with my lunch, I’m thinking that my lazy mind needs a nap, but that thought aside I’ve been hunting for some free, web-based, information organization tools that I can use to plan out some projects I have due at work and some projects I’m working on at home. Inspired by a “Get It Done Guy” podcast entitled “Streamline Your Writing Using Outline Tools”, I decided to take Stever up on his tip and locate something that will allow me to outline my thoughts, organize them as headings, subheadings, etc., add content, notes, links and other bits of detail to each group, and then easily export it all to MS Word for more traditional writing or share it with collaborators, colleagues or friends.

There are a LOT of mind mapping tools available, but I don’t want to put any money down on any particular one until I’ve convinced myself that the process will work for me. I do think visually, so an outline makes sense, but generally I don’t use them when writing reports or articles or blog posts. However, I’m working on my memoir right now – a project I started several months ago. This is clearly the lengthiest thing I’ve every written and I’m also finding that I don’t necessarily write it in chronological order. There are stories that I think of and need to write out while the detail is at hand. There are stories that I think I want to give detail to in the future. Thus, over time I’m collecting quite a jumble of pieces that I know, in time, will come together but now while they’re not, I need a way to organize them. Saving them as different files on my computer or as paragraphs in the manuscript highlighted in different colors only goes so far. I think I’ll give this mapping idea a try.

I started this afternoon by trying several options before settling on I drew a quick sketch (map) of my upcoming 3-day holiday weekend, breaking down activities into different categories and color-coding them accordingly. It was very easy to do and a start towards seeing if this is something that will work for me. If you have any experience using mind maps for project organization or writing, please share them in the comments section of this post. It would be nice to see how others use them.

My Upcoming Weekend

This is going to take awhile…

June 18, 2011

Journals filled with notes

I started a project – part writing, part visual art – a few months ago after I found an old
Rolodex on the “Free to a Good Home” cart at the library. I didn’t know what I’d do with it when I first saw it, but knew that I needed to have it. Not too long after I found the Rolodex, I was also given a typewriter: a 1969 Hermes 3000 in perfect condition. With these two things in my possession, the idea for the project came to me.

For years I’ve written down quotations from books, lines from movies, song lyrics, memorable things spoken or written to me by friends or family. I’ve collected these things in journals and notebooks, in dog-eared and underlined books, on scraps of paper tucked into my wallet until I can transfer them to a journal.

I thought about the Rolodex – what a Rolodex once represented. It was a collection of people to call when you needed something, sources of information, places to help, colleagues you worked with or friends to count on. My “new” Rolodex was a huge Rolodex and every card, save one, was blank. On the other hand, my journals were filled with “people” that I looked to for inspiration, the ones I called on when I needed a word to keep me going or a word to share with a friend who might need the same. They’re filled with quotable quotes – great sources of information – that can be expounded upon for writing exercises or blog posts.

I decided to put this trusty old information source to use and began transferring the many quotes onto the cards of the Rolodex. The typewriter gives the cards a sense of authenticity; it makes them fit into that old box. I’ve been tempted to hand print some, but there’s also something grand – should I ever finish this project – that will be achieved by typing out a thousand quotes on a thousand cards. (Truthfully, I’ve no idea how many there really are.)

That's a LOT of cards to fill

I was back at it again today after having put it aside for a couple of months, so I thought I’d document it here. Stay tuned. It’s going to take awhile, but one day it will be one pretty great collection – the best Rolodex of people to call that one could imagine.